Becoming a new parent is exhausting, and most of us will do anything to get our baby to sleep for even just a few hours. After all, if the baby sleeps, you can maybe sneak a nap in, too, and a cat nap can make a big difference.
As adults, our bodies make melatonin, which helps to regulate our circadian rhythms and signals our brain that it’s time for sleep. The release of melatonin kickstarts drowsiness, heavy eyelids, and those other familiar symptoms indicating that you are tired. Babies, however, do not produce melatonin until they are three months old. As a result, they have to rely on you, their parents, to regulate their sleep cycles. And the truth is, a lot of babies are born with their sleep cycles completely flipped (also known as “night and day confusion”). What can you do to get their sleep habits on track?
It’s not as hard as you might think—the key is to keep trying. Success won’t happen overnight.
1. Help your baby establish a sleep-wake schedule
First, try to establish a routine. Babies respond well to a fixed schedule, but you have to set it for them. Of course, not all babies are the same, and they most likely won’t fit into a perfect hourly routine. You can determine a baby’s wake and sleep windows by paying attention to their sleepy cues: rubbing their eyes, yawning, and fussing are just a few.
If your baby is overtired (which happens when they skip their naps), you will know—they often cry hysterically, arch their backs, and seem inconsolable at this point. Establishing a routine will help you avoid the dreaded overtiredness stage.
While this routine varies depending on your baby’s age, you can start by following these four steps:
- Feed and burp the baby (no longer than 30 minutes; this includes breastfeeding or formula feeding)
- Awake time (about 30 minutes when they are very young, and as they get older, you can stretch this awake time out)
- Naptime (no longer than 2-2.5 hours for newborns)
- Then start the cycle over again
2. Make sure they are getting a full feeding each time
Babies have small stomachs, and their esophageal muscle isn’t fully developed yet. That means when they eat, it should be just the right amount—not so much that they have an upset stomach, and not so little that they are hungry and fussy every hour (or less). Your pediatrician will help you figure out just how much your baby needs based on their weight gain, but on average, 3-4 ounces per feeding is a good place to start.
If you notice your baby is spitting up after every feeding or is exhibiting hunger cues after eating, they may not be getting the right amount. Again, talk to your doctor about what you can do to ensure the baby is full after every feeding. Do not offer “snacks” or small feedings—get them used to a full meal every 2-3 hours. Do not wait longer than 3 hours to feed your baby—wake them up if you have to. This will help them get used to a routine, and giving them a full meal each time will help them sleep better.
3. Get them used to sleeping in their crib
To establish good sleeping habits early on, make sure your baby’s environment is conducive to sleep. During the day, make noise and expose them to some natural light. At night or whenever they are sleeping in their crib (including daytime naps), make sure the room is dark and quiet. There should be no intense stimulation when it’s time to sleep.
What’s more, try not to allow them to get used to falling asleep in places other than their crib—that includes their car seat, your arms, or a swing or rocking chair.
4. Massage or bathe the baby before bed
Studies show that taking a warm bath 1-2 hours before bed helps adults sleep better, and the same goes for babies. A warm bath can be a comfortable and relaxing part of the bedtime routine. The baby will begin to associate bath time with bedtime and sleep. You can also try a gentle massage to relax the baby and calm them down for sleep.
Newborns have something called a “Moro” or startle reflex. You may have noticed while they sleep, their arms flail around. While harmless, this movement can wake them up prematurely, so a swaddle is an excellent way to make them feel secure and prevent the reflex from waking them up. You can swaddle them with a stretchy, soft blanket or a swaddle with Velcro straps for secure fastening. Either way, make sure their arms are down at their sides, and they are tightly swaddled.
6. Put them to bed drowsy, but not asleep
One of the most important things you can do to help your baby fall asleep on their own is to put them to bed drowsy but not completely asleep. If you rock them to sleep outside of their crib, they will learn to rely on that method instead of learning to fall asleep on their own. Most babies are pretty tired after a feeding; make sure to keep them awake for the 30 minutes after eating, so they have time to digest, and then put them to bed.
7. Teach them to self-soothe
If your baby starts crying after you put them to bed, don’t rush in right away to comfort them. Wait a few minutes before going in, and when you do go in, try not to pick them up or turn the lights on. Instead, gently pat them on the stomach, put their pacifier back in if it’s fallen out, and quietly shush them. Try this a few times, slowly increasing the time between when you go back in the room. Eventually, they will learn to soothe themselves.
8. Go for an early bedtime
An early bedtime is best—shoot for some time between 7-8 pm. You may also consider a “dream feed” around 10:30 or 11 pm, which will fill the baby up for the night and give you a longer stretch of sleep. Remember, the longest stretch of sleep for a baby depends on their age—for two weeks old, it’s about 2 hours, three weeks old, it’s 3 hours, and so on. After that long stretch, they will most likely be awake and ready to eat every 2-3 hours.
9. Don’t skip naps
Making sure the baby naps during the day is crucial. Logic might tell you if you keep the baby awake during the day, they will sleep through the night. However, newborns don’t have an established circadian rhythm yet, so when they’re overly tired from skipping naps, they just become more fussy and upset, and then they’re harder to put to bed at night. Don’t let naps during the day go past 2.5 hours; otherwise, they might not be able to fall asleep.
10. Remember that it takes time
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably past the point of sleep deprivation—you’re officially operating on desperation. But most people don’t sleep-train their babies in one night; it takes time. Be patient with yourself and your baby as you navigate these new changes. Soon enough, your baby will be sleeping through the night, and so will you!